Today’s post was written by library student ambassador Sol Lewites. Sol is a sophomore biology major.
We are lucky to be living in an era where scientific and medical advancements increase every passing day. From GMOs to artificial intelligence, we are surrounded by progress that although exciting, can often be overwhelming.
Last week, students and faculty came together at the William H. Hannon Library to learn more about technological advancements and their legal implications as Cesare Romano, professor of Law at Loyola Law School, presented his upcoming publication: The Regulation of Human Germline Genome Modification and the Human Right to Science: A Comparative Study (2019). As he introduced the concept of CRISPR technology (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats), Romano explained that it essentially allows geneticists to modify the DNA and make specific changes: “It is precise, cost efficient, and it works”. Romano emphasized, however, that there is a fine line between curing versus enhancing; modifying features such as IQ, baldness, etc, requires tinkering with different genes. Although we’ll never be able to produce humans who can “shoot laser out their eyes,” Romano said with some joviality, we are constantly increasing our ability to modify the human genome.
Given that science develops faster than law, Romano and his colleagues took it upon themselves to gather information about the legal systems of 18 different countries and analyzed the laws and definitions that related to genetic modifications. Their findings showed that most countries have laws that are obsolete, meaning that CRISPR was not even on the radar when these laws were put in place. Romano mentioned that lawmakers want to create flexibility, which is why laws are often vague; this vagueness, however, becomes a liability when it comes to topics like genetics. Another issue the authors found was that CRISPR is sometimes regulated with criminal law, penalizing those who fail to adhere to the heavily regulated guidelines.
The field of basic research on germline tissue is full of prohibitions and restrictions. Basic inquiries can be done using gametes (sex cells such as egg and sperm), however, and very few countries regulate research using gametes; except Switzerland, which currently has the most restrictive legal framework for this type of research. Even though research using gametes is allowed in countries such as Australia, Germany and Spain, it cannot be applied in a clinical context. Many countries prohibit research on embryos unless it is beneficial for that specific embryo. There is also a fourteen-day rule: geneticists cannot let the embryo mature beyond 14 days. After the fourteen-day mark, the cell becomes a “specialized” cell, meaning that it is clear what the embryo will become.
Romano also discussed the ethical implications of human germline modification, using the case of Dr. He Jiankui as an example: Jiankui created the first set of genetically modified human twins and he made one of the girls immune to HIV/AIDS while the other served as a “control”. As a result, Jiankui made the HIV-immune child more susceptible to West Nile Virus and influenza. (Notedly, her parents did not have a choice because they didn’t know this would happen).
Romano says that the solution to prevent cases like these, while still allowing science to thrive and benefit society as a whole, is transitioning from doctrinal to normative law. Romano has a background in international law. He explained the difference between Right to Science and Right of Science: the right to science maintains that everyone has the right to benefit from progress in science and technology, while the rights of science deals with the right of the scientist to do their work, express opinions, and own their intellectual property. The rights to science and of science cannot be arbitrary, they can be limited by law, meaning that they cannot be used to destroy or limit other human rights or to a greater extent than international law allows, and limitations should be place only for the purpose of promoting the welfare of a democratic society, not for morals.
These conditions are fundamental for the conclusions Romano and his co-authors reached in their book: “Current prevailing national regulatory frameworks fail to respect the Right to Science and the Right of Science; the key obligations governments have is to respect and protect these rights and enjoy such progress”. Additionally, he found that “limitations to scientific freedom based on vague laws are not truly determined by law, the problem arises when breaches of unduly vague laws are criminally sanctioned…”. Romano concluded that limitations to scientific freedom based on obsolete laws are not accepted in a “democratic society”.
“Shouldn’t we take a step back and assess this democratically through an open process?” said Romano as his audience listened eagerly for his concluding thoughts. He proposed that we “decide what the real important values of society are through public discussion and let science regulate itself”, and he drew his fascinating speech to a close by encouraging society to redo a cost and benefit analysis, for CRISPR is such a game changer that it is necessary to have an open discussion as a society rather than simply saying “no”.
Several faculty members from the Seaver College of Science and Engineering engaged in avid discussions with Romano during the Q&A portion of the evening, inquiring about possible solutions to the legal issues and providing insight as to what the boundaries should be in terms of science and ethics. Students who attended the event shared their impressions of the talk and mentioned they heard about it through the library’s flyers or were encouraged to attend by their teachers. Everyone seemed delighted by the event, a member of the LMU community shared that she was “so glad I came, it was really interesting and eye-opening”. Cesare Romano’s Pub Night sparked a conversation that we must all take part in, especially here at LMU where we are exposed to groundbreaking technology and development daily.
Thank you, Sol, for sharing your experience and reflections with us! If you are a student interested in being an event correspondent at a library event, contact John Jackson, Head of Outreach and Communications for the William H. Hannon Library.